I saw this a little while back at The Broke and the Bookish and thought it was a good one for me. I love fiction that makes me think. However, when I came to compile a list I realised that I was putting a lot of non-fiction into it because, well, there are just so many fascinating non-fiction books out there. I could easily have done this twice over.
Jean-Paul Sartre – The Age of Reason
I nearly began with Nausea, because that is the absolute classic novel of philosophy and fiction. But The Age of Reason is actually a better story, I think, and highlights the same issues of freedom, free will and individual responsibility. Mathieu is a philosophy professor who is in need of a lump sum and quickly; his girlfriend, Marcelle, has fallen pregnant and he is assured of very little in his life except the desire not to become a father. Oh yes, you will see already that you have to be able to tolerate unsympathetic characters to read this one, but they are quite fascinating in their awfulness.
Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
A complete change of tone, then, for these personal writings by the one time Roman Emperor (161-180 AD), in which he details his ideas about stoic philosophy. These are moving and inspirational thoughts, gentle, calm, insightful. It was my dipping into book for a while, and I rarely came away without something to bolster my moral backbone and soothe any fretful anxieties. He has the most wonderful voice; strong and tender.
Nick Davies – Flat Earth News
It is my unswerving belief that if civilisation is in any way on the brink of collapse, it’s the media’s fault. Happily, Nick Davies wrote the book to back me up on this. Well, he doesn’t say that word for word. but from the pen of an investigative journalist sickened by the actions of his own profession comes this remarkable exposé, detailing the distortion, propaganda and careless sloppiness of the newspaper world. If you’ve ever been upset by a scare story, endless celebrity gossip or strange claims for science, you should really read this.
Naomi Wolf – The Beauty Myth
This is a bit of an old book now, but still a good one. Published in 1991 it argues that as women have gained more public power, so the social pressure on them to look beautiful has increased remorselessly. Women may step into the spotlight, but at the expense of maintaining impossible standards of perfection, as the image of the ‘Iron Maiden’, the feminine ideal, is used to chastise and punish women who inevitably fail to achieve it. I don’t think much has changed, except that the whole idea has been internalised ever more vigorously and become, therefore, all the more insidious and invisible.
Julian Barnes – Flaubert’s Parrot
Mister Litlove was talking about this book only the other evening, and so I mention it for him, as one of his – and my – all time favourite novels of ideas. Geoffrey Braithwaite is a historian writing about Gustave Flaubert and travelling around France in search of the mythical stuffed parrot from Flaubert’s famous short story ‘Un Coeur simple’. As he tries to decide which of the two birds he finds is genuine, he has an awful lot of fun playing with Flaubert’s bibliography and literary criticism in general.
Neil Strauss – The Game
I recommend this for reasons entirely at odds with its stated purpose. This bestseller was written in order to help helpless men get as many dates with women as possible. I say dates, but you know what I mean, or at least, what the word ‘date’ might imply to the target audience of Strauss’s book. Ladies, if you are stepping out into the dating world, you should read this and be warned. It is a perfect handbook to instruct you in whom to avoid. And for women everywhere, a disturbing look into both male and female psyches, showing how men can exploit women and how easy it is to be complicit in that.
Albert Camus – The Fall
This is a slim little volume that packs a hefty philosophical punch. It is written as a monologue addressed to the reader by the lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, and is perhaps the only book of its form that works convincingly. Clamence is living in a faintly hellish Amsterdam, spinning out his days in the local bars from which he delivers up the story of his life and the strange incident that altered it forever. This is the testimony of an individual fall from grace that draws into its orbit the notion of human virtue, the idea of judgement and the collapse of organised religion. And yet it wears these heavy topics with thistledown lightness, offering itself simply as the tale of an Everyman in the confused middle of the twentieth century.
Adam Phillips – Houdini’s Box
I could easily recommend every one of Adam Phillips’ books, but I chose this one as a good introduction to his writing. The book mostly focuses on two lives, one the life of Houdini, the greatest escapologists of all time, and the other, one of Adam Phillips’ clients, a man who has to go home immediately he realises that the woman he is with desires him. Woven into the narrative are all sorts of other stories about the escape clauses that we dream up to protect us from life and its clinging tentacles, as well as a great deal of provocative commentary on what escape might do for us, what it might mean in the greater scheme of things. Phillips is never less than a wise and surprising analyst.
Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida
In the second half of his career, Barthes stopped writing dense works of literary theory and began to produce ever more meditative and playful books. Camera Lucida is his gentle but astute exploration of the art of photography, an inquiry provoked by the death of Barthes’ beloved mother and his search for a photograph that properly represented her. Clever, yes, but also touching, amusing and profound.
Darian Leader and David Corfield – Why Do People Get Ill?
There is no such thing, the writers of this book maintain, as a purely biological illness, and nor is there any such thing as a purely psychosomatic one. Instead, all illness resides somewhere in the grey area in between, requiring both a biological flaw and psychological pressure to blossom into being. This book really turns upside down all the orthodox wisdom on immunity, pointing out that the event most likely to put you in hospital is the death of a long-term partner, and the exercise in prevention most likely to keep you out is staying cheerful. I know better than most how hard people find it to accept the psychological dimension of illness – or at least to understand it is not something that can be willed out of existence. Plus I appreciated the tone it is written in – calm, sensible and not at all sensational.